Lately I've been thinking a lot about free books and what they mean for authors. Specifically, I've been wondering what the lack or presence of DRM (Digital Rights Management) does for e-books, and whether the unregulated sharing of e-books will spell doom to authors.
As a reader, I'm a big fan of e-books. I've moved enough times to appreciate how light they are, and how very easy to store. Obviously, my e-reader is not about to replace my bookshelves full of beloved hardcovers, but I see a real possibility that e-books will replace my collection of mass market books. After all, mass market books are, in my opinion, good in two ways: they're affordable, and they're portable. Electronic books are also affordable and much more portable.
Since I got my e-reader just over a year ago, I have actually purchased more hardcover books with the expectation that clearing my mass markets off of my shelves (and replacing them with digital copies) will leave more space for the books I really love. Now, mind you, I haven't actually gotten rid of a single book in that year+ but one of these days... Well, let's face it, I've always been better at accumulating books than getting rid of them. In my ideal world, hardcover books would come with a free digital copy, in the same way that some Blu-ray discs do... but I digress.
As an author, I worry that ebooks are entirely too easy to pirate, especially without DRM protection. DRM protection is what prevents you from reading a kindle file on your nook, or vice verse, and purports to prevent readers from copying their e-books and distributing them to the world for free.
However, even books with DRM are vulnerable to piracy. After all, there are computer experts around the world who jump at the opportunity to do things other people say they "can't," and who can blame them? The fact is that a sufficiently motivated technology expert will eventually be able to strip DRM from any file, if they can't already.
Which leaves me wondering if the advent of e-books is also the end of authors getting paid for their work. Obviously, I hope it isn't.
Still, there are a couple of authors who have given me hope: Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman.
Cory Doctorow, a journalist and sci-fi author, decided back in 2003 to make all of his books available for free as e-books. He releases his books under a Creative Commons license agreement which gives the reader the right to share and adapt the e-book provided he or she do so in a noncommercial fashion, release any adaptations under the same Creative Commons agreement, and give credit where credit is due by attributing the original work to the author.
Doctorow explains his decision in a Forbes article here. Essentially, Doctorow encourages his readers to download and share his e-books, with only one request, that, if they like the book, they, "buy it or donate a copy to a worthy, cash-strapped institution." Since his books have consistently outperformed his publisher's sales expectations, there is reason to believe that, at least in his case, free e-books actually stimulate sales.
Neil Gaiman has not gone to the same extremes, though he has released some of his books for free for a limited period of time. Gaiman, a sci-fi/fantasy author is a patron of the Open Rights Group which is a group in the UK that works to protect digital rights. Last year they interviewed him, and recently a clip from that interview went viral. Gaiman also posted a blog entry on the issue here. In the interview Gaiman made a particularly interesting point. He points out (I'm paraphrasing, watch the video for his exact wording) that if you think about your favorite authors, the ones who have published multiple books, and think about how you got your first book by that author, chances are you got it for free.
And, at least in my case, he's right. I borrowed my first Connie Willis book from my mother-in-law, my first Jasper Fforde from my mother, my first Gwen Bristow from the library (and my second, third, fourth and fifth since her books were out of print and it took me a while to track down good copies to buy.) If you extend the concept of "free books" to used bookstores (from which authors get no royalties), I got my first Jennifer Chiaverini for "free" too. Even my first set of the Chronicles of Narnia was a Christmas gift from my uncle.
And yet, when you look at my shelves full of hardcovers, those are the authors you'll see. In many cases a single free book led me to purchase multiple hardcovers. (In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia I now have two complete hardcover sets since it took me so long to find a set that was numbered in the "right" order.)
Of course, there are exceptions to that trend. I have purchased books on a whim, or on the recommendation of booksellers. I can even think of one that I purchased just based on the Publisher's Weekly review, but perhaps these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
In Gaiman's case, he found that when he gave away a digital copy of one book, it led to increased sales of all of his books... and when the promotion ended, sales returned to normal.
Of course, in the case of a prolific author like Gaiman, giving away a single book may be like giving away a single potato chip... it's a gift that will make the recipient come back for more. For those of us with fewer titles to our name, giving away one book might be akin to giving away the entire bag.
There is so much more to this issue, not the least of which is the impact e-books are having on bookstores. It's a complicated issue, and one that I doubt we will fully understand for a few years. In the meantime, all I can do is hope that the future holds a sustainable market for authors, and that readers continue to support the writers they enjoy.
I know I will.
What about you? How do you feel about e-books, DRM, and the potential of piracy? Who are your favorite authors, and how did you first encounter their work?